With Sexual Harassment, Almost Counts

headless man in business suit lounging on couch

Overt sexual harassment in the workplace may be decreasing but sexism or gender bias is increasing, The Boston Globe reported a few weeks ago in an article titled “Women facing ‘massive increase in hostility’ in workplace, #MeToo-era study says.”

Reporter Katie Johnston wrote that the subset of men who feel threatened by the increasingly loud voices of their female colleagues are foregoing inappropriate touches, which are no longer socially acceptable, and turning to more insidious means of undermining their competition such as exclusion from key meetings and withholding well-earned promotions.

This increase in a subtle form of workplace sexual harassment is troubling because women and society already “discount” less blatant cases of harassment.

Discounting Negative Experiences

Many women minimize negative experiences, pushing aside our feelings so we can get on with the job, whether it’s running the company or raising the kids. #MeToo may be giving us the support and courage to speak up when harassment is severe, but what will happen in situations of gender bias, which is harder to identify and harder to prove? Will we brush those under the conference room carpet, afraid we won’t be taken seriously, doubtful we can prove the transgression, or unsure in our own minds if it even counted?

Society, too, minimizes some forms of harassment. People try to measure the relevance of each transgression and the pain of victims using some still-to-be-defined spectrum or scale. The oft-asked question, How bad was it really?, is an attempt to assign a value to the incident, taking into account the harasser’s motivation as well as the victim’s experience. 

Ranking Harassment Crimes

It is true that a ranking system for harassment crimes is necessary to define appropriate punishment. It is true there is a wide swath of harassment situations occupying the space between offenses widely accepted as punishable and “locker room talk”. But that doesn’t mean that “lesser” forms of harassment like gender bias are not worthy of acknowledgement, correction or punishment.

As many victims can attest, any abuse or harassment, no matter the degree of severity, plays games with your confidence, your dignity and your outlook. The impact might not be as immediate or as visible as that from a violent rape or horrific incest situation. But all instances are wrong. There should be no acceptable sexism.

This zero-tolerance policy will be deemed overkill by some, but it is widely accepted as the standard with other crimes. A street punk stealing $10 from your wallet is as accountable for the crime as a professional thief who steals thousands of dollars worth of valuables from a home. More to the point, in both cases, we accept that the victims suffered, perhaps feeling violated, frightened and powerless.

Crossing Invisible Lines

When the invisible line between acceptable and unacceptable social mores is crossed, damage happens. That line might be the bond of trust between adult and child. It might be a vicious invasion of a victim’s personal space and body. Or it might be the professional respect between colleagues that makes the workplace safe and equitable.

Almost counts in more than horseshoes and hand grenades. Victims of “lesser abuse” including workplace gender bias need to feel secure in speaking up and demanding action to ensure their fair treatment.

Society as a whole needs to recognize that almost counts, and work to abolish all forms of sexual harassment, including gender bias, for abusers will not reform their ways until forced to relinquish this increasingly prevalent weapon of workplace warfare.

#MeToo #TimesUp #HAHG #AlmostCounts